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Caring Cities: Los Angeles

CHANGE and the city of Los Angeles led a research effort to learn directly from private early child care providers to better understand the challenges they face and the support they need to thrive.  

This is part of the Caring Cities research report conducted in three CHANGE cities.

At every level of government in the United States, there is a mounting recognition of the economic and societal importance of investing in child care. When a young child and their family have access to high-quality and affordable care, the impact can be transformational – enriching the lives of children, allowing parents to stay in the workforce, and boosting the economy.

For low-income families in the United States, early child care is a proven policy intervention that can help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. However, despite widespread recognition of the immediate and long-term benefits of child care, the United States faces a caregiving crisis marked by a shortage of quality and affordable early child care options, due largely to lack of sustainable compensation.

  • 90% of the brain is developed by age 5. Children who receive quality child care during this critical period have stronger cognitive and social- emotional growth.

  • More than 1/3 of parents across the U.S. with kids under 5 report challenges finding child care options when adults need to work. In fact, 50% of Americans are living in child care deserts.

  • 50%

    of child care providers in the country are on some form of government assistance. Nationwide, the average salary for a childcare provider is $30,000 per year.

  • The lack of investment in child care has major consequences for both individual families and national economic growth. A failure to address the lack of affordable child care in U.S. could lead to losses of $290 billion each year in GDP starting in 2030.

Understanding Child Care in Los Angeles

There are about 230,000 children aged 5 and under in the City of Los Angeles, 45% of whom are eligible for subsidized care. In contrast, based on Department of Social Services records, there are a maximum of about 51,000 licensed child care seats. At the same time, in many cases, the cost of care is rising faster than parents’ wages, while child care providers run their businesses on extremely slim margins.

Importantly, as the State of California expands its involvement in early care and education, Los Angeles’ already fragile child care delivery system is being further strained. California is currently implementing Universal Transitional Kindergarten (UTK) to provide free preschool for all 4-year-olds. While UTK is an important investment to expand care options for families, the program is leading to unintended negative consequences within the child care delivery system. These include a loss of enrollment and staff for existing private child care programs, which are the only care options for many families with children aged 3 and under. Because of these dynamics, the city of Los Angeles is focusing efforts on stabilizing the child care infrastructure serving infants and toddlers so that families continue to have options for care as UTK is implemented.

As part of the growing movement to support caregiving in the United States, the Mayor and Los Angeles City Council have funded dedicated staff within the Community Investment for Families Department (CIFD) to focus on policies and initiatives that increase families’ access to quality care. The Child Care Policy and Equity unit was launched in January 2023 and is guided by the mission of reducing poverty and stimulating the economy by strengthening the City of Los Angeles’ child care infrastructure and alleviating major barriers to access for low-income families. Through the Caring Cities program, CHANGE and CIFD designed a short-term research effort to hear directly from private child care providers, who offer important early care and education for low-income families in Los Angeles.

In partnership with local Resource and Referral Agencies (R&Rs), CHANGE and CIFD sought to understand:

  • What are the challenges and opportunities in running a child care business in Los Angeles?

  • What existing resources have been helpful?
  • What are interviewees’ future goals and what support do they need to reach them?

  • What can the City government do to help?

Key Findings

Five key findings were identified from across the different research engagements conducted with providers:

Child care providers are devoted to the children and families they serve, and desire greater visibility and respect for their labor.

Los Angeles child care providers discussed the passion and dedication required to work in child care. Many view caregiving as a personal and professional calling, sharing how much they love their jobs and feel connected to the mission of care. Working long hours and wearing multiple hats, providers invest a large amount of time and energy into their work. They are committed to building deep relationships with children and their families. 

Nearly two-thirds of providers engaged through the research have over twenty years of experience in the child care and education sector. Yet, providers discussed how they struggle to be seen as valued educators and often face perceptions that they are unskilled. Some discussed the larger systemic inequities at play when it comes to child care. They acknowledged that their status as women, especially women of color, contributes to the lack of recognition and support they receive.

Providers identified the need for increased pay as the number one challenge facing their businesses.

Almost all providers cited challenges related to the mismatch between what they get paid to provide child care and what it actually costs to provide quality care. The slim business margins lead to providers earning very low salaries and large numbers choosing to leave the profession. In Los Angeles County, the average family child care provider has an annual salary of only $36,000. Many discussed how such low rates of pay make it hard to stay in business.

Low pay is particularly challenging for providers serving communities with lower incomes and higher levels of poverty. This is because many of the families they serve are using subsidy programs funded by the State that offer very low reimbursement rates for care. Even the families who do not qualify for or enroll in subsidy programs struggle to pay for their care. 

Providers often feel like they are navigating business operations alone. They are excited by opportunities for guidance and mentorship.

Running a child care business is challenging and many providers, who come to the profession motivated by passion and necessity, possess limited business experience. Often, providers feel that they have no clear roadmap for navigating business challenges.

Many providers want to grow their businesses and serve more families. There is a strong interest in efforts to clarify and streamline processes for starting and expanding child care programs.

More than one-third of providers engaged through the research process had recently expanded or were passionate about the opportunity to expand their business to support more families and employ more people. Despite a desire to grow, many identified challenges to growth, including the lack of clear information on expansion and frustration with zoning, permitting, and licensing roadblocks. There was a strong interest in efforts to provide clearer guidance and streamline bureaucratic hurdles. 

When providers thrive, they leave a lasting impact on communities.

Providers expressed pride in the impact of their work. Many shared examples of how running child care businesses allowed them to support the growth of their own families, their employees, and their communities.Providers also celebrated the ways in which their caregiving gives rise to new providers that uplift future generations of children, families, and communities.

Turning Research in Action

Cities across the United States rely almost exclusively on a private-pay market model for child care, while systems and policies prevent providers at the front lines from making livable wages. The current model has been widely considered a market failure, with communities sourcing child care at the expense of providers. With the introduction of Universal Transitional Kindergarten and the lasting impacts of COVID-19, the Los Angeles care system is closer than ever to a breaking point. Where government agencies have often played a supporting role in the child care landscape, the City of Los Angeles now faces a historic opportunity to actively steer the future of care toward a more sustainable and equitable model that supports providers and acknowledges their role as a critical engine powering the economy. 

With the launch of the Child Care Policy and Equity unit within the City of LA’s Community Investment for Families Department (CIFD), the Mayor and City Council have seized this opportunity to make new investments in child care. The Child Care Policy and Equity unit is working to leverage government resources, policies, and partnerships to strengthen the infrastructure of child care in the City of Los Angeles. Their mission is to break the cycle of poverty through increased access to high-quality child care options. 

The Child Care Policy and Equity unit has developed policy goals and interventions that holistically aim to strengthen the child care landscape by addressing the needs of both populations. The following strategic goals and initiatives are grounded in the feedback collected from providers through the Caring Cities engagement, along with other extensive research and engagement efforts with families.

Download the Los Angeles chapter of the Caring Cities report at the top of the page, and read the full research findings and caregiver quotes.

The research featured in this report is part of the City Hub and Network for Gender Equity (CHANGE) Caring Cities program. CHANGE has partnered with three cities in its global network – Bogotá, Buenos Aires, and Los Angeles – to implement community-based research efforts that invite caregivers to shape local services and policies.

CHANGE believes that care is critical to gender equity and is partnering with cities to celebrate, learn from, and invest in caregivers.

Read the full report here.

City: Los Angeles

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